Removing the Stigma: How to Create Productive Dialog About Addiction
by Felicia Lowe
People don’t generally begin taking a drug with the intention of becoming addicted. Rather, a downward spiral occurs in which the initial positive feelings created by the drug wear off, and then more of the drug is taken to attempt to get that feeling back. But once someone is addicted, it can be difficult to acknowledge the problem and get addiction treatment. This problem is only compounded by the significant stigma surrounding drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.
Alcohol and drug addiction have become serious problems in the United States. From 2002 to 2015, the number of overdose deaths from any drug rose by more than 100%. Abuse of all drugs across the board remains an issue, but prescription narcotics have especially escalated the country’s addiction problem. As of 2014, nearly 2 million Americans were dependent on prescription painkillers, and one in four patients who get narcotics via prescription from a healthcare provider become dependent and end up abusing the drug.
With the addiction epidemic reaching such staggering numbers, it is clear that something needs to be done to control it. Many addiction treatment options are available to those who are suffering, but many are ashamed to seek help. Addiction is seen by many as a choice someone makes rather than a disease. Some may see addicts as devoid of morals or as criminals. Our society has created plenty of labels to negatively identify drug addicts, like “junkie,” “stoner,” or “pothead.” Addicts themselves may feel ostracized because of the engrained cultural stigma surrounding drug use, even though they understand that they no longer have control over their problem. Because of their fear of being shamed or labeled if they seek treatment, many addicts will isolate themselves even further as they try to hide their problem. This, in turn, reinforces the appearance that the drug abuse is a choice. Thus, a negative cycle of isolation and further stigmatization is created.
To turn around the addiction epidemic, several steps need to occur. Both addicts and society as a whole need to be better educated about addiction. It is a disease, not a choice. Making this distinction more widely known can reduce the stigma around seeking addiction treatment. Also, communication needs to be more open between addicts, those close to them, and the community as a whole. Assuming that the individual suffering from addiction has admitted their problem, those close to them need to respond with support and willingness to help, rather than shaming or labeling them. Health insurance companies and health-care providers need to make information about addiction treatment more readily accessible. Schools and workplaces can offer resources on how to find help and should not treat addiction differently than other illnesses.
Those suffering from addiction need to feel safe admitting their problem and seeking help. They should not have to suffer in silence for fear of being judged or facing negative consequences. Of the many Americans suffering from drug addiction, only a small fraction seek addiction treatment. All too many end up becoming a statistic in the overdose epidemic. Society must take the necessary actions to reverse the stigma associated with addiction in order to turn this epidemic around and encourage those affected to seek the treatment they need.
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